American Crime Story
In the spring of 1997, Major Dad from TV’s Major Dad was booked on a tour of Andrews Air Force Base organized with what appears to have been a herculean effort by Linda Tripp. At the last minute, though, he cancels. Linda, frustrated by her life of inconsequence, seeks refuge in a snack pack of sour cream and onion chips because all feelings are edible on Impeachment. The series’ raison d’être is to center the women entangled in Bill Clinton’s near-downfall, and it continues to surprise by depicting Monica Lewinsky’s traitorous friend with painstaking attention. This week the show dares to ask: Would Bill have been impeached if Linda Tripp wasn’t already blue on the day a Newsweek reporter called her? If Linda hadn’t kept a bag of Utz in her desk drawer but instead needed to hit the vending machine, thereby sending the reporter to voicemail and allowing her time to cool off, would Bill have fared differently? In a way, wasn’t his perjury written in the stars on the afternoon an erstwhile TV dad accidentally slighted an erstwhile White House staffer?
I jest, and yet I jest not. Exploring the personal motivations of those involved in the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal risks exaggerating their significance. What felt like a novel way into a well-worn story in episode one has started to curdle for me by the end of episode three. The bigger a character Bill becomes on the show — and he has several juicy scenes in “Not To Be Believed” — the meaner it seems each time the camera boomerangs to Linda’s TV dinners. Is it not possible that Linda was a petty, vindictive person and that Bill Clinton’s affairs were bound to become political bludgeons, especially with Ann Coulter, George Conway, and Matt Drudge in the scrum?
Can a potato chip eaten by a woman ever just be a source of calories?
It has been five months since Clinton’s reelection and two since the Inaugural, but Monica is still banished to the Pentagon with only Linda’s company to distract her. Usually, Linda’s brimming with inane bullshit about her desk mate’s bad habits, but today she’s got gold: The reporter Mike Isikoff asked her, out of the blue, about Kathleen Willey’s brief rendezvous with the president years ago. Linda called White House lawyer Bruce Lindsey to warn him, but the White House isn’t getting back to her. Linda’s so prone to overstating her importance that it’s hard to believe she’s genuinely implicated in something provocative. Monica wants to tell Bill (or at least wants a pretense to phone him); Linda wants to confront Kathleen (or at least have an excuse to keep talking about herself). Somehow, the friends persuade each other against it. “If you do nothing,” Monica tells Linda. “There’s no story.”
But Linda wants a story. She needs it. She meets with Isikoff just to tell him that she won’t be meeting with him, and she calls Kathleen to say she’d prefer not to take Isikoff’s calls. She’s not so much doing nothing as moving slowly, extending and luxuriating this brief period of salience.
Monica, on the other hand, couldn’t feel smaller. Since attending Bill’s radio address weeks ago, she’s been stonewalled by the White House. Finally, at his secretary’s gentle pleading, Bill invites her to come by. Monica arrives in her most form-fitting claret-hued dress, but something’s off. She brings Bill a book he barely pretends he’ll read; Bill barely laughs at her barely jokes. He suggests “Diet Cokes,” surely a euphemism between them at this point, but instead of macking on her, Bill breaks up with her by way of a pitiful yet self-congratulatory tale. When he was 40-years-old and governor of Arkansas, perhaps around the exact moment Paula Jones alleges he harassed her, Bill pledged to end his affairs and recommit to his family. Now, he’s recommitting again. Re-recommitting. Monica’s devastated; Bill’s got Tony Blair waiting on the line. Parting is never easy.
When a weeping Monica calls her from a Pennsylvania Ave. payphone, Linda rushes to the Watergate to console her delusional, young friend, who says delusional, young things about respecting Bill more for owning “his struggles” with fidelity. Linda is a sobering influence. She convinces Monica to send Bill a strongly-worded email demanding her job back, to which Linda inserts light emotional bullying and a thinly-veiled threat. Amazingly, it works. Bill calls Monica to the White House to reprimand her insubordination, but he also agrees to find a better gig. This time, Monica and Bill part as “friends,” whatever that word could possibly mean between a 50-something world leader and a lovesick puppy. And it is in the renewed sense of friendship, I guess, that Monica tells him Kathleen’s shopping her story to Newsweek. Intriguingly, Bill was under the impression Isikoff was hounding Kathleen to come forward.
Now, if there’s one thing Linda Tripp cannot stand, it’s other people believing that they’re important in any way. She turns up at Kathleen’s house to announce she remembers events differently; Kathleen was absolutely thrilled to be fondled in an Oval-adjacent side room. She accuses Kathleen of being two-faced and opportunistic, which perhaps she is; Kathleen calls Linda puffed up and drama-loving, which she is. (Welcome to Washington, amirite?) Soon Monica makes a third trip to the White House to get chastised for her own role in this revolving game of telephone in which the message never gets muddled, just infused with personal agendas. This time Bill wants Linda to call his attorney, which we know she did. He just didn’t bother to call her back.
So why might Bruce be eager to talk to Linda now when just weeks ago he was content to ignore her? That query leads us to Impeachment’s eternal B-story: Paula Jones. On May 27, 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Bill wasn’t immune from this embarrassing reckoning and that Paula’s lawsuit could proceed. The Joneses celebrate; Bill calls it the worst decision in the history of the Court since Dred Scott. He complains it’s just another witch-hunt in a series of witch-hunts, like Whitewater and Vince Foster’s death. If they settle with Jones, there will be another allegation and another until eventually the GOP presses him to resign or his second term runs out. Hillary will never let him settle, he adds with even more finality. Tellingly, Bill changes his mind on settling when he learns Kathleen Willey is talking.
By then, it’s already too late. Washington is thick with people who want to bring Bill down, including Matt Drudge (a hammy but appealing Billy Eichner). The internet gossipmonger is quickly welcomed into the fold of conservative rabble-rousers; in some leafy enclave of Greater Washington, Laura Ingraham even hosts a party to introduce him around. Ann Coulter is a guest, though not a well-behaved one; her zinger-of-the-week is calling Ingraham “a grayscale Xerox of me.” Over passed hors d’oeuvres, Drudge, who considers himself a hard-hitting reporter, asks George Conway to confirm a rumor about a woman telling her Clinton sexual harassment story to Newsweek. Conway, still moonlighting for Team Jones, is happy to help.
But Drudge doesn’t publish his Kathleen Willey tip right away. Maybe he’s still under the illusion that his beta-mode news site will be respected within the Washington bullpen. As a professional courtesy or perhaps just to taunt him, Drudge goes to see Isikoff, who insults him a few different ways. He knocks Drudge’s unsourced journalism (fair enough) and his lack of a journalism degree (a snobby take on an unnecessary degree) and his hardboiled newsman aesthetic (trench coat, thick acetate glasses, that affected lilt in his manner of speaking a la Edward R. Murrow). So Drudge goes ahead and scoops Newsweek, publishing a story about Isikoff trying to publish a story. Is it really news just because it’s on the Internet? That question seems so quaint now.
In real life, the gloves came off hard. Over the month of July, Drudge kept posting new details from Isikoff’s unpublished story, which sent the reporter scrambling for on-the-record sources. Kathleen stopped answering his calls, but Linda’s always thirsty for the satisfaction of a ringing phone. She has Isikoff meet her at Georgetown salon; All The President’s Men meets Steel Magnolias. She contradicts Kathleen’s account, telling Isikoff the White House volunteer seemed more smitten than harassed as she exited the Oval. “She’s inserting herself. She wants to matter,” Linda tells him with not even a hint of self-awareness. “It’s very sad.”
When Newsweek finally publishes, Linda buys three copies and takes them to her car in the Pentagon lot. In the story, the president’s lawyer says Linda is “not to be believed.” As cringe as she can be, it’s also sad. Yes, she’s inserting herself and she wants to matter, but she’s not lying. Clouded as she is by personal resentment and dislike of the Clintons, Linda may even be telling a meaningful truth when she discloses to Isikoff that the President has been conducting an affair with a White House intern.
In her initial lawsuit, Paula Jones asked for $700,000 and an apology. Clinton’s team offers $700,000 and a teak — a joint statement clearing Paula’s name. It’s a life-changing amount of money for a woman who’d like her life to change. She and Steve have been struggling in LA; he’s an aspiring actor who can’t act. But this lawsuit isn’t about changing Paula’s life. It’s about ruining Bill’s. Her personal lawyers warn her of the ferocity of Clinton’s oppo research machine — every facet of Paula’s life will be up for grabs if this goes to trial. Every mistake she’s ever made, every lie she’s ever told. But Susan Carpenter-McMillian manipulates Paula into rejecting the settlement, just like Ann Coulter and her little elves and Matt Drudge and every conservative in Washington with a distaste for Bubba wants her to do. It’ll be years before Paula sees any money, and Paula’s name will never be cleared. In fact, by the time she settles with Bill, Paula won’t even be a main character in the Paula Jones lawsuit. That horrific duty will belong to Monica, who won’t make a cent.
Yes, They Really Did That
• Linda really did run into Kathleen moments after her alleged encounter with Bill — on that point alone the women agree. Tripp told Newsweek that she looked “disheveled. Her face red and her lipstick was off.”